Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Thursday, April 18, 2024

Catalina Sea Ranch Dives Into Aquaculture – and IoT 

(Source: Catalina Sea Farm)

Just off the coast of Northern California, the Catalina Sea Ranch is starting to grow mussels – and an IoT-fueled bumper crop of data about aquaculture, mollusks, and the Pacific Ocean.

The offshore shellfish ranch, the first to get federal authority to operate in United States' waters, intends to increase commercial shellfish aquaculture, while simultaneously increasing the health of the ecosystem. To accomplish – and prove – this, the ranch uses a growing number of off-the-shelf and custom Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, CEO Phil Cruver told EnterpriseTech. The underwater ranch is fast becoming both an experiment in cultivating shellfish and IoT, as Sea Ranch invites in more partners from across the technology spectrum.

In addition to building its oceanic ranch, Catalina Ranch is diving into "marine big data," said Cruver, a science that uses real-time and historical data about the ocean's environment to understand short- and long-term trends, anticipate problems, and develop mitigation steps for immediate corrective actions to these manmade or natural issues. This data also will help federal agencies – such as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NAFS) arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – address fishing limits, marine planning, and sustainable offshore aquaculture, according to the ranch. The concept has many supporters: The U.S. has an $11.2 billion seafood deficit and imports 91 percent (by value) of the seafood consumers eat, according to NMFS.

Catch of the Day: IoT

Sea Ranch is attracting as much attention from the technology industry as the restaurant business.

Verizon signed on early to provide its wireless LTE network as the communications backbone for the sensors, devices, and laptops converging on the watery acreage, Cruver said. Today, the ranch grows mussels in 100 acres six miles from land; it plans to expand to about 1,000 acres, he said. Sea Ranch places mussel seeds on 30-foot lines hung from buoys, which are then anchored to the ocean bed via newly developed screw anchors that do not disrupt sea life.

The ranch relies on external consultants and an array of technology partners for its expanding use of other new and established technologies to monitor and support the mussels and its goal. In fact, Sea Ranch's adoption of IoT components such as robots and sensors and use of analytics simplified fundraising, recalled Cruver.

"For the last couple of years, we raised just over $1 million for the mussel ranch. That was so difficult. But if you say marine big data, ocean Internet of things, everyone wants to climb on that," he said. "People say if you get a small sliver, this could be really big. It certainly is a lot more attractive, more sexy [than mussels]."

(Source: Catalina Sea Ranch)

Setting up a router (Source: Catalina Sea Ranch)

Using a former NOAA buoy as its platform, the ranch set up the truck-size platform with sensors, radar, router, and video camera. The router sends data from the buoy, sensors, and other devices to Verizon's Terremark cloud so Sea Ranch and other authorized researchers – such as local university faculty and students – can access it, said Cruver. The radar and video capture sea life and maintain security, alerting staff to human interference so Sea Ranch can call the U.S. Coast Guard, he added.

Since first developing the concept of an ocean mussel farm, IoT costs have dropped significantly and options  expanded, he said. Today, for example, Sea Ranch is reviewing four submersible drones it can use to fly out to specific GPS coordinates; regularly measure plankton, water temperature, acidity, and other details, and feed back this data for analysis, said Cruver. Using the open source-based, $845 OpenROV underwater exploration robot, Sea Ranch can dive about 300 feet to check on mussels, lines, and gather more data, he added.

IBM, which has developed several initiatives for waters such as Ireland's Galway Bay, is teaming up with Sea Ranch, said Cruver. For its part, Freescale Semiconductor is developing a barometer that measures the mass of phytoplankton – microscopic organisms that live in watery environments, said Cruver. Current models cost more than $2,000; Freescale Semiconductor's model will list for about $150, he said.

"This is not trivial. This is going to be a lot of trial and error. This is something I don't think you could do in the lab," Cruver added.

In addition, Sea Ranch plans to place sensors across its acres of mussel farms now costs have dropped so significantly.

"The big thing was sensors. The traditional ones are very expensive, very sophisticated, but now we've come across three or four companies that develop ones that are very inexpensive. You couldn't have done this two, three years ago. It's just in the last year the sensor technologies have plummeted so much we could do this," said Cruver. "We want hundreds or thousands of sensors all around the ranch so at any time, in real time, we can see what's going on."

(Source: Catalina Sea Ranch)

Captain Jack (Source: Catalina Sea Ranch)

No matter how it's captured, data travels via Verizon's Terremark cloud to laptops carried aboard the organization's research vessel, Captain Jack. Having taken a group of Verizon executives out on a tour to demonstrate sustainability, Cruver contacted the company CEO.

"I sent an email to the CEO of Verizon – I don't know him – and asked him if Verizon would like to be the official wireless carrier of the first sustainable aquaculture farm in the United States. That started this," he said. "I'm out there on the ocean all the time and I still get two, three bars on my Verizon phone."

By offering itself as a lab, Sea Ranch expects to advance the pace of development for both mussels and IoT technologies.

Sea Ranch's data potentially could become a sizable profit driver, but today the organization will remain focused on aquaculture and use the data and analytics to promote this goal.

"We're going to be planting the ranch in about 90 days. After that it's going to be small data, putting the buoy in there. A year from now we'll have some of the system worked out and proof of concept [completed]," Cruver said. "We'll have more robust sensors and more functionality worked out, and then it'll become big data. Say two, three years from now, analytics will be enhanced and we can monetize it from that point. Meanwhile we're learning a lot about aquaculture operations, showing there are no negative impacts and trying to put a dent in this aquaculture deficit."

And, many hope, providing some insight into a small segment of the fisheries industry.





About the author: Alison Diana

Managing editor of Enterprise Technology. I've been covering tech and business for many years, for publications such as InformationWeek, Baseline Magazine, and Florida Today. A native Brit and longtime Yankees fan, I live with my husband, daughter, and two cats on the Space Coast in Florida.